Franz Göll: Witness to History

The Turbulent World of Franz GollAn old saying goes like this: “There are three types of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.”

The implicit meaning is that only the first set of people are consequential in life.

But sometimes those who watch from the sidelines make their mark in surprising ways.

I think a good example of this is a person who is the subject of a new book. The Turbulent World of Franz Göll, by Peter Fritzsche [Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674055315], is a fascinating read. It chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a lower-level administrative manager, a lifetime resident of Berlin.

What makes the book so interesting is that everything is taken from the meticulous diaries and notes written down by Herr Göll over the course of his adult life. And his 85 years of life happened to span the entire sweep of the consequential events in Germany and Europe during the 20th century (1899-1984).

This isn’t the first book that deals with private diaries kept by people living in Berlin during World War II. About 25 years ago, the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, a young Russian/Lithuanian princess who moved to the German capital city after the Soviets had occupied her country in 1940, were published by her son after her death. In Berlin Diaries: 1940-1945 [Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0394757773], we get a blow-by-blow description of life as an aristocrat in Berlin … a city full of nervous energy that quickly becomes an inferno. As an adrenaline rush, it’s hard to top that book. (In fact, I’m surprised Mlle. Vassiltchikov’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.)

But this volume on Franz Göll is quite different. Peter Fritzsche, the book’s author, is a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in German history. In researching the book, Fritzsche had a veritable treasure trove of material to work with. That’s because Göll bequeathed his entire set of diaries plus other ephemera to the Berlin State Archives upon his death in 1984.

There they remained, essentially untouched, until Professor Fritzsche came across them and realized what he had found: some 23 volumes of diaries meticulously chronicling one man’s life in Berlin from the era of World War I all the way up to the modern day.

… And more. Not only was Göll a writer, he was an obsessive collector as well – so much so, he’d probably be a prime specimen for a psychoanalyst.

Göll kept copious notes on his voracious reading … created poems … collected postcards (more than 8,000 of them!) … clipped and saved countless newspaper and magazine articles. A lifelong bachelor who would live in the same two-room Berlin apartment his entire adult life, he was a loner who likely felt out of place in his working class surroundings despite being of working-class rank himself.

He was largely self-taught in his knowledge, and his entertainments were solitary pursuits like going to the movies.

Surely a “sad sack” case if there ever was one.

But author Fritzsche has gleaned all sorts of interesting material from Göll’s diaries — and in the process helps us understand that, far from being “in the dark” about the conditions of Jews and other minorities during the era of the Third Reich, Göll was aware of what was happening. Maybe not the details, but certainly in a broader sense.

In a diary posting from 1941, he wrote: “It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization [and] removal to the Eastern territories.”

An early supporter of the Nazi party, as early as 1935 Göll had became disillusioned with conditions under Hitler, his diary postings reveal.

Some of Göll’s diary entries from earlier decades of Germany’s turbulent history are equally interesting. He wrote of the hungry Berlin winters at the end of World War I, and during Germany’s period of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, took note of what he saw all around him.

Later in life, as a resident of West Berlin, Göll saw his younger countrymen shake off their “German-ness” and embrace a generalized Western materialism that he found difficult to understand or accept. (In this regard, he was probably no different from many people of the older generation – in Germany or elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows how an obscure person with no claim to fame — a loner with virtually no friends or relatives — can accomplish something important for posterity. As “obsessive-compulsive” as Göll may have been, even he seemed to think what he was doing was for naught. Writing in 1954 at the age of 55:

“I used to take myself very seriously: my diaries, my collections, my readings, my poems, and not least, my ‘self.’ Today, I have to admit it: It would have been important to have acquired a trade, to have become a man, and to have founded a family … Nothing I did ever bore any fruit; it was all an idle wasting of time.”

Readers of this book will disagree. In “watching things happen,” Herr Göll actually accomplished a great deal — for historians and for us.

Otto von Habsburg at 97: A Link to the Past … and the Future

Four-year-old Otto von Habsburg, flanked by his parents, at the time of his father’s coronation as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (1916).

This past month, Otto von Habsburg celebrated his 97th birthday. As the eldest son of the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he is a link with history – the heir apparent to one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties that ruled Central Europe for more than 650 years.

Otto’s life was borne amid conflict. He was just a small boy of four when his father Karl ascended the throne of Europe’s third largest country, right in the middle of the First World War – a conflict which was to bring about the collapse of the monarchy in 1918. Emperor Karl died just a few short years later, making Otto the titular head of the impoverished family, which was forced to live “on the run” in Switzerland and Spain.

Throughout his years of schooling, Otto was tutored in the fiendishly difficult Hungarian language. This was deemed important because Otto’s father had never relinquished his claim to the throne of Hungary — and because Hungary was still technically a monarchy, ruled as regent by Admiral Miklós Horthy, once supreme commander of the Austro-Hungarian navy.

But soon thereafter came the destruction of Second World War and the spread of communism throughout most of the lands of the old empire. At this point, it seemed almost inevitable that Otto would be destined to become “just another” ex-royal personage, whiling away his days in carefree locations like Monte-Carlo, St. Tropez or the Aegean Isles.

But here is where Otto played his hand differently – and in the process became an important player on the international stage and an advocate for a new European political order. Renouncing any claims to the throne, he became instead an indefatigable champion of European unity. An ardent anticommunist, Otto believed the key to Europe’s future was to strive for common interests and common ground. He stood for election to the European Parliament and was an early member of that body, eventually serving for 20 years.

Otto von HabsburgHe also became an important historian and lecturer, traveling the world and speaking with audiences everywhere. I remember hearing Otto von Habsburg give a speech at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, MN in 1972, when I was a student in high school. The predictions Otto made in that speech were uncanny in their accuracy. He forecast almost to the exact year the fall of communism (1990), and he also warned about Europe’s smoldering powder-keg (the breakup of Yugoslavia into squabbling mini-states).

And when the Iron Curtain finally did come down in the early 1990s, Otto offered up his services to the new post-communist governments in the land of his forefathers. Subsequently, he played a significant role as a kind of unofficial cultural and social ambassador for several countries, most notably Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. The prestige of the Habsburg name and its ties to a proud history provided added “cachet” to the early efforts of the post-communist governments to establish meaningful economic and business ties with the West. (Otto’s fluency in the Hungarian language, thanks to all the many hours of tutoring when he was a boy, turned out to be quite handy in a wholly unexpected yet very welcome way.)

Today, at age 97, Otto von Habsburg is still very much with us. He has slowed down a bit, but still shuttles regularly between his home in Bavaria and “his” cities of Budapest, Vienna and Zagreb. From the vantage point of history – where we can now see how the “brave new world” of the 20th Century brought forth more than its share of human misery along with all of the political innovation – the virtues of the “old order” have become easier to recognize.

Certainly, that is the case in the lands of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Otto, “the man who would be king,” has not only been declared an official citizen of several countries, but is also respected by people all across the political spectrum. In the end, not a bad legacy at all.

So here’s a hearty toast to Otto von Habsburg: 97 years young and a true citizen of the world.